The Short Waves: W2XAD and W2XAF 

27 March 2024


Cover of World-Radio

From World-Radio, dated 5 April 1935

The two experimental relay broadcasting stations W2XAF and W2XAD, operated by the General Electric Company in Schenectady, N.Y., U.S.A., are perhaps the best known of all the shortwave stations in the United States, not only because of their long years of uninterrupted service, but also for their power, high fidelity of signal, and their many unusual programmes. W2XAF, transmitting on a wavelength of 31.48 m., or a frequency of 9,530 kc/s, is the more powerful and perhaps the best known because its time on the air is four times that of W2XAD, which operates on a daytime wavelength of 19.56 m. (15,330 kc/s).

W2XAF uses an aerial system directional to European countries or South America. This was especially designed by Dr. E. F. W. Alexanderson to assure reliable reception by Admiral Byrd and his men during their expeditions to Little America in the Antarctic. This antenna has a tendency to boost the power of this 40 kW station to the equivalent of about 400 kW.

Interesting Achievements

During the last expedition to Little America, the General Electric Company maintained a regular bi-weekly broadcast to Byrd and his men, and, according to a radiogram recently received, not a programme was missed. During this series, many unusual broadcasts were sent. Sydney, Australia, originated a programme and sent it, through VK2ME, to Schenectady, a distance of 10,000 miles. The programme was then relayed to Little America, another 12,000 miles. Another programme in the series, originating in Honolulu, Hawaii, was sent by short-wave to San Francisco and thence by wire to Schenectady, where it was relayed to Admiral Byrd. Little America, being “free” from nature’s thunder and lightning storms, was given an artificial one by radio, as a stunt. In General Electric’s high-voltage laboratory 10,000,000 volts of artificial lightning, with its crashings and bangs resembling a real storm, were broadcast to the expedition with the explanation: “Here’s something you are missing at home.” A radiogram reply the next day stated Byrd and his men had heard the demonstration, but “really are quite satisfied to be in a place where we miss the electrical storms.”

Electricity arcs across a room

“The Voice of Electricity.” Ten-million-volt artificial lightning discharge in the G.E.C. laboratory

This same artificial lightning is now used as the call of General Electric’s short-wave stations. A record has been made of three crashes of artificial lightning, with its attending roll of thunder, and this is broadcast at the opening and close of every programme. This so-called theme song, the “Voice of Electricity,” is distinctive and understood by all listeners, regardless of their language.

Perhaps the most outstanding achievement of W2XAD, which has been heard in practically every country, was its broadcast around the world on June 30, 1930. This had never been accomplished before and, as far as it is known, has never been done since. General Electric engineers, who have carried on experimental exchange of programmes with Australia for years, felt that if it were possible to reach the Antipodes in a westerly direction, it might also be possible to do so in an easterly path in co-operation with some of the European short-wave stations.

A test was arranged on June 30, in cooperation with Philips Radio, of Holland, and the Amalgamated Wireless Australasia, Limited, of Australia. The first test was unexpectedly successful. Within two hours after the test was instituted, Australia reported that it was getting Schenectady by way of Java, and at the request of Schenectady put the signal through completing the circuit.

Talking Round the World

The voice of the speaker left Schenectady on W2XAD, on 19.58 m., was received in Huizen, Holland, where it was relayed by PHI, on 16.88 m., received by PLW at Bandoeng, Java, and re-transmitted on 36.5 m. to Sydney, where the engineers of VK2ME, operating on 28.5 m., sent it, by the westerly route, direct to Schenectady. Thus C. D. Wagoner, of General Electric, who was the speaker, talked to himself while the world listened. His voice came back as an echo, each syllable repeating itself an eighth of a second later. The distance was approximately 22,900 miles.

Because of the unexpected success of the first test, the signal was broadcast on the medium-wave transmitter WGY. As an additional novelty, a phonograph record, electrically reproduced, was sent viâ W2XAD over the round-the-world circuit and reproduced on its return. Listeners to WGY heard only the received signal, and the music was sufficiently clear for them to identify it as “I Love You Truly.”

Another unusual world-wide broadcast, which brought in letters from the four corners of the globe, was staged when both transmitters, W2XAF and W2XAD, were used for a special programme by Robert “Believe it or Not” Ripley, well-known cartoonist, directed to all countries and translated into nine different languages. It is because of such unusual broadcasts that General Electric’s stations have become so widely known all over the world. These short-wave transmitters normally radiate the “chain” programmes of the National Broadcasting Company.


Transmitter hall

Short-wave transmitter, W2XAS, 19.56 m.


Early Development Work

For several years after the radio broadcasting industry was born, short-wave activities were in the background, put there as being of little commercial use. It was not until 1923 that the General Electric Company thought seriously of using higher frequencies for voice transmission. One hundred metres, then definitely in the short-wave class, was selected as the frequency to be used for this development. Preliminary work was begun with the development of oscillator and modulator units for the newly-designed, 20-kilowatt, water-cooled valve. Intense high-frequency pick-up from this short-wave oscillator caused serious interference with other important work nearby. So the little-thought-of short-wave apparatus was moved to other quarters. From the radio engineering laboratories, the engineers moved their equipment to an abandoned “potato shack” on an island in a river near the General Electric plant in Schenectady.

The development and investigations were but well under way when instructions came to have a short-wave transmitter, designed to operate on 100 m. and capable of relaying WGY programmes, ready to go on the air by a certain date. The high-power rectifier, oscillator, modulator unit, and large air capacitor were hastily assembled and installed. Such was the need for speed that some of the transformers were not even removed from their packing-cases. But the station, then known as W2XI, went “on the air ” — to be heard by a few amateurs and foreign listeners, who immediately wrote to Schenectady about the “terrific 100-metre harmonic of WGY.”

Once established, short-wave broadcasting developed rapidly. With the assistance of General Electric engineers, the Radio Corporation of America set up a plant at Tuckerton, New Jersey, and carried on conversations with England on short waves. Other nations were also beginning to take notice of the possibilities of the higher frequencies.


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